So Plan B, as I understand it, was to get everybody in the science council to sign off on constructing a fleet of massive space arks, which would carry the entire population of Krypton to a planet that’s not scheduled to blow up within the next thirty days.
I imagine that Plan C was for Jor-El to just take his own wife and baby in a family-sized rocket ride to elsewhere, but then the stupid science council said that would create a climate of fear and panic, so he had to promise that he and Lara wouldn’t leave the planet.
They’re currently working on Plan D, which is to at least get the kid somewhere with a supply of passing motorists and farm families, and even that’s getting the science council all worked up, so they’re going to have to work fast. Meanwhile, Lara is advocating for some unspecified Plan E. It would have been easier if they could have stuck with Plan A, which was for the planet just not to blow up in the first place.
So Jackie Cooper is terrible as Perry White, is I think my message at the outset of this post. He’s surrounded by screwball comedy characters at the Daily Planet, and he doesn’t have a single funny line. He doesn’t listen to any of the other actors; he’s just waiting for his chance to do the blandest possible take on his next line.
He was fourth choice for the role, brought on the set in a big hurry and dressed up in shirt sleeves and a tie. First choice was Jack Klugman, who would have been perfect; Klugman could have been Perry White first thing in the morning, with fifteen seconds notice. But at the last minute, Klugman turned them down, and their backup choice, Eddie Albert, wanted too much money. Then they hired Keenan Wynn, but as soon as he arrived, he had chest pains and had to go to the hospital. So they called Jackie Cooper and basically just told him to get on a plane, and they’d tell him what the part was when he arrived. Apparently there was some kind of Jackie Cooper delivery service that you could call when you wanted one.
That’s not today’s problem, of course; we don’t have to deal with him until 48:30, which is around 35 minutes away from where we’re currently standing, and even when he’s there, we won’t have to pay him that much attention. I’m just bringing him up now because I’ve already written two posts this week about how great Marlon Brando is, and I’m about to write about how great Susannah York is, and I don’t want you to think that I’m a suck-up.
Because, damn it, Susannah York brings it in this scene; there is no way around it. She appears as Superman’s mom for a total of six minutes in this movie, and it breaks my heart just to look at her.
Admittedly, it’s not hard for a professional actor to key in to their character’s feelings when you’re playing a mother who has no choice but to put her newborn baby in a catapult and fling him into the outer darkness. I’m not saying it’s easy, but you don’t need weeks of sense memory and animal work to get there. Lots of people could play this part. I’m just saying that Susannah York is one of them, and I like looking at her while she’s doing it.
Of course, it helps that the script gives them the absolute minimum number of words to get the scene across, and then stays out of their way and lets them do their job. Here’s the whole thing:
Lara: Have you finished?
(He walks towards her.)
Jor-El: This is the only answer, Lara. If he remains here with us, he will die as surely as we will.
Lara: But why Earth, Jor-El? They’re primitives, thousands of years behind us!
Jor-El: He will need that advantage to survive. Their atmosphere will… will sustain him.
(His gaze rests on the baby in his wife’s arms. Then Jor-El moves to the structure that he’s working on. She follows.)
Lara: He will defy their gravity.
Jor-El: He will look like one of them.
Lara: He won’t be one of them.
Jor-El: No. His dense molecular structure will make him strong.
Lara: He’ll be odd. Different.
Jor-El: He will be fast. Virtually invulnerable.
Lara: Isolated. Alone.
Jor-El: He will not be alone.
(He peers closely at the crystal in his hand.)
Jor-El: He will never be alone.
And that’s it.
It’s ninety-seven words long. Two long shots, a couple medium shots and a brief flutter of close-ups, in an avant-garde performance space that we’ve all agreed to pretend is an aerospace research lab. The only splashes of color in the scene are the baby’s swaddling clothes, and the echo of those colors in Lara’s hair and face. One of the actors spends most of the scene very specifically not looking at the other actor.
I have watched that scene dozens of times now, and it repays my attention every time. If any of the people involved had not done their jobs precisely the way they were supposed to — the writer, the actors, the director, the set designer, the costume designer, the cinematographer — it would have been silly sci-fi B-movie trash. It is breathtakingly good.
One of the things that I like best about it is the simple back-and-forth rhythm that starts halfway through the scene: He will look like one of them. He won’t be one of them. He’ll be odd, different. He’ll be fast, virtually invulnerable. Isolated. Alone. He will not be alone. He will never be alone.
I was really bad at analyzing poetic rhythm in college — feet and trochees and spondees and anapests — to the extent that I had to stop studying English poetry and fell into bad company and French literary theory instead, where all you needed to know were made-up words that don’t mean anything, so I can’t say exactly why the rhythm of that dialogue appeals to me the way that it does. But it is elevated above the plane of ordinary speech, and I think it’s beautiful.
And the interesting thing — yes, don’t worry, there’s an interesting thing — is that this scene was in the Newman/Benton script, and it sucked. What we see on the screen is the rewrite by “creative consultant” Tom Mankiewicz. Here’s how it would have been, without him:
INT. JOR-EL’S LABORATORY – KRYPTON NIGHT
A large room with complicated equipment scattered everywhere. Jor-El is working on something that looks like a computer in the center of the room. LARA, Jor-El’s wife, enters and watches him as he places glowing crystals into the heart of the machine.
I have programmed the memory cells with
answers to the problems he will face.
Lara does not seem impressed.
It’s the only logical conclusion. If he remains
here, he’ll be as dead as…
— as we will be.
But why Earth, Jor-El? They’re practically animals.
They are primitive, Lara, but they are not animals.
A million years behind us.
Jor-El, he’s only a baby.
Their atmosphere will sustain him. He will look
like one of them.
He’ll be weightless.
Yes, true. But on other worlds there would be other problems —
heat, cold, no life, no life support systems… No, Lara, believe me;
Earth is the least of evils. On Earth, his lighter gravity will render
him almost weightless – that can’t be helped. But with his denser
molecular structure, he will also be strong.
(trying to see the good)
He will be fast; he will be virtually invulnerable.
He will be odd, different.
Well, physiologically, he… won’t quite fit.
That version hits exactly the same beats, and almost all of the ninety-seven words in the finished scene are in there. But Mankiewicz took out the clunky lines, like “Jor-El, he’s only a baby,” and “that can’t be helped”. He shaped the words into that back-and-forth rhythm, and he wrote a real ending to the scene — “He will not be alone; he will never be alone” — instead of the disappointing “physiologically, he won’t quite fit.”
And best of all, Mankiewicz cut the following section completely, which would have been intolerable.
Lara, there isn’t much time.
She turns away from him.
(patiently reasoning with her)
You still have some vestiges of primitive…
what is the word they used to say?
You’ve been doing some research in the archives.
I want to know what my child is going
Then you have one of those ‘feelings.’
It was called: ‘love.’
A sudden tremor produces an ominous CREAKING SOUND, growing LOUDER. Now a large crack appears in the wall. Instinctively, Lara runs to her husband’s arm for safety. Then, at the last second, she overcomes this “weakness” and steps back from him.
And you? Don’t you feel something?
On Jor-El – as he turns away, unable to admit the emotion he feels.
So, I mean, fuck that. Right?
You’re intelligent people, and I’m sure that I don’t have to explain why that would have been juvenile and embarrassing, but I’ll do it, just to have it on the record.
Terrible underlying concept #1: Logic and reason are male, and therefore associated with strength; love and emotion are female, and therefore associated with weakness.
Terrible underlying concept #2: As civilizations advance, they become more logical and less emotional, stepping upward from the primitive instincts of the female, toward the higher achievements of the rational male. If you project far enough into the future, civilization would become so rational and science-based that they would even forget the word for “feelings”.
Now, there are vestiges of that primitive worldview in the finished scene — the man is talking about powers and advantages; the woman is talking about feelings and fears. Ultimately, we’re expected to believe that Jor-El’s more-or-less rational plan is the correct answer, and that Lara’s emotional response doesn’t actually accomplish anything.
But Brando as Jor-El is clearly feeling this loss as deeply as she is; he’s just got a different way of expressing it. She’s trying to catch his eye, and he just stands there playing with his crystals, because in that moment, he can’t face her. Of course he feels love for his son, and pain at their parting; that’s why he’s constructed this elaborate years-long Powerpoint presentation that he’s packing into the spacecraft.
So this moment belongs on the Tom Mankiewicz honor list: another bullet deflected by a smart script doctor. Maybe civilization is advancing, after all.
1.11: A Misuse of Energy.
This didn’t fit in the post, but I have to show you this amazing trading card. The photo is clearly a candid behind-the-scenes shot, of Susannah York messing around with the cute baby between shots. But the caption says “A Final Farewell from Lara!” which makes her look pretty jolly as they shoot her son out into the void. Maybe she’s not that good with feelings after all.
1.11: A Misuse of Energy.
— Danny Horn